'This is supposed to be the Provence of Israel'

Facing Hezbollah rockets, volunteers evacuated from border distribute life-saving gear

As barrages increase along border with Lebanon, helpers make sure that residents who haven’t left — and the security personnel who guard them — have the essentials

Reporter at The Times of Israel

  • Shlomo Brand and Yishai Windmiller drop off vests donated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to a member of the first responder team in Klil, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
    Shlomo Brand and Yishai Windmiller drop off vests donated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews to a member of the first responder team in Klil, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
  • A border sign on the way to Rosh Hanikra. (Diana Bletter)
    A border sign on the way to Rosh Hanikra. (Diana Bletter)
  • Shlomo Brand, right, with Yishai Windmiller by their delivery vehicle, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
    Shlomo Brand, right, with Yishai Windmiller by their delivery vehicle, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
  • Volunteers at a farm in the agricultural collective town of Liman, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
    Volunteers at a farm in the agricultural collective town of Liman, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
  • A view of the Israeli border with Lebanon near the evacuated town of Shlomi, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)
    A view of the Israeli border with Lebanon near the evacuated town of Shlomi, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)

On a recent morning, with rockets and artillery shells fired from southern Lebanon flying overhead, volunteers Shlomo Brand, 74, and Yishai Windmiller, 61, drove around in a small security vehicle dropping off medical equipment, communication devices and other gear to soldiers and civilians throughout the western Galilee’s Mateh Asher Regional Council.

Earlier that day, the volunteers had received their delivery assignments from Arie Zali, head of the Northern Command Security of Schools and Education. Sometimes Zali has supplies for military personnel, other times he tasks the volunteers with dropping off supplies for the Mateh Asher Regional Council school system. Some of its 1,000 students have been forced to leave their communities, while others have been rotated out of schools in evacuated areas and now study elsewhere.

Some 8,000 residents from eight communities located within the regional council have been displaced since war broke out on October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel, slaughtered 1,200 people and abducted 240 more to the Gaza Strip.

As the Israeli military continues its mission of removing Hamas from power in the coastal enclave, the fighting along the northern border with Lebanon has heated up as well, with the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group conducting indiscriminate “sympathy” attacks on Israeli military and civilian targets alike. Now, parts of western Galilee have become closed military zones.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there. So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

The Israel Defense Forces has ramped up airstrikes on southern Lebanon to push Hezbollah back from Israel’s northern border. Hezbollah has named 140 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 19 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

Meanwhile, volunteers have stepped in to deliver much-needed supplies to the north’s beleaguered communities.

Volunteers Shlomo Brand, right, with Yishai Windmiller by their delivery vehicle in northern Israel, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)

The 82-square mile Mateh Asher Regional Council, filled with agricultural fields and rolling hills, is just south of the Lebanese border and runs west to the Mediterranean Sea. The population of about 25,000 includes Jews, Muslims, Christians and Bedouins.

Though his own community was evacuated from the area, Brand said that he couldn’t “just do nothing” during the war, and so joined about a dozen other volunteers at the Mateh Asher Regional Council, where Zali paired him up with Windmiller.

Zali, who supervises the security at every Mateh Asher Regional Council institution, said that Brand and Windmiller “are my hands and legs in the field. Some places are dangerous. Before I give these guys an assignment, I have to think twice.”

In one kibbutz that had not been emptied, Brand and Windmiller stopped at a school to drop off a megaphone for teachers to use in case of emergencies. The school’s security guard, along with many others in the western Galilee, is an Arab Israeli who served in the IDF.

“They’ve carried their weight,” said Brand, who volunteers in the regional council’s former soldiers security group. “Now they’re guarding all our children.”

“Nursery and kindergarten children are being taught in bomb shelters,” added Windmiller, who lives in New York but is in Israel to volunteer during the war. “Kids have to play within 30 seconds’ distance of the shelter. It’s very sad that a whole generation will be brought up with PTSD.”

Since the war began, tens of thousands of residents in northern Israel have been evacuated because of constant Hezbollah rocket fire.

A border sign on the way to Rosh Hanikra. (Diana Bletter)

Israeli-born Windmiller served as an IDF soldier and was wounded in the First Lebanon War in 1982. On October 7, as he was getting ready for a trip to Patagonia, he heard about the Hamas massacre and immediately changed his ticket for a flight to Israel, coming with the same suitcase and clothes he’d packed for South America.

Windmiller began volunteering soon after he arrived in Israel, driving Brand around on dangerous roads — some heavily damaged by tank treads.

On the day The Times of Israel joined the volunteers, to bypass an area that was too exposed to Hezbollah anti-tank missiles, Windmiller took a detour and sped up a steep, winding pass through some woods. A few minutes later, Brand instructed, “Turn left, turn left!”

“I’m letting that guy pass,” Windmiller said, and then quipped, “Even after I’ve driven him five-and-a-half days each week for two months, he still doesn’t trust my driving.”

The pair stopped at a community where soldiers on guard duty pointed to the temporary bomb shelter they had received the previous week.

“It’s a must,” one soldier said. “We have eight to 10 seconds before impact from a Hezbollah rocket. Until now, we had to dive into a ditch.”

Shlomo Brand gives treats from Arab and Jewish schoolchildren to a member of the first responder team from the Bedouin village of Arab al-Aramshe, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)

Brand gave the soldiers some necessary equipment along with doughnuts made by Arab and Jewish school children in a joint project, “Opening Up the Future,” sponsored by the Mateh Asher Regional Council and the neighboring predominantly Muslim village of Mazra’a.

“We brought you gifts from Santa Claus,” Windmiller joked with the soldiers, but his mood grew serious when we drove through Brand’s village, which had been evacuated. Brand and some of the other residents are now staying in a hotel farther south from the border.

Brand pointed out a plant nursery with ripe avocados hanging from trees that couldn’t be harvested, the kindergarten and grocery store, both closed, and a few stray dogs. On a previous round of deliveries, Brand said, they had stopped to feed the horse of a woman who’d been evacuated.

“This is supposed to be the ‘Provence of Israel,’” Brand said. “We have the sea, the hills, the trees and fields. Usually, you hear the sound of children’s laughter, people driving to work, activity, and now there’s nothing.”

A view of the Israeli border with Lebanon near the evacuated town of Shlomi, December 2023. (Diana Bletter)

Later on, from a spot on another road, the zigzag border with Lebanon became visible. Much of the Israeli hillside, once a verdant forest of evergreen trees, was blackened and burnt. Brand got out of the car and stared at the border for a moment.

“This is too dangerous,” he said suddenly. “Let’s go.”

In the next community, Brand made a detour to check on the house of some friends — everything was still in place, just as they had left it — and then drove to another village where he dropped off six Kevlar vests donated by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. That morning, he and Windmiller stopped at eight communities; on another day, they visited 23 places, their personal record.

In public remarks before a recent weekly cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are acting to restore security to the north and return residents to their homes. If we don’t achieve that [security] through diplomacy, we will achieve it through military means.”

Hezbollah’s deputy leader said on the same day that as long as the Gaza war is ongoing, Israel will not be able to allow its residents to return to their homes in northern Israel.

“There will be more suffering for Israelis,” Windmiller said as he drove. “But in the end, we will flourish once again. We will endure.”

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